Fast-food workers' convention

Fast-food workers gather in the western Chicago suburbs / Megan Crepeau, RedEye (Megan Crepeau, RedEye / July 26, 2014)

West suburban Villa Park isn't quite in McDonald's backyard—the fast-food giant is headquartered in nearby Oak Brook—but it was close enough, said organizers of a fast-food workers convention held there this weekend.

"The McDonald's corporation is here, [and] they're a big target for us," said organizer Terrance Wise, 35, who makes $9.40 an hour at a Burger King in Kansas City, Mo. "They're the head of the snake."

More than 1,000 fast-food workers from around the country gathered Friday and Saturday to support an agenda including a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize. The convention was mainly funded by the Service Employees International Union and other labor organizations.

"What you are doing right now is the most important worker movement of today," said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who gave the closing address Saturday.

Past actions have not been enough to get fast-food companies to respond, Wise said, so many speakers tried to get workers out of their comfort zones.

"The focus is to escalate the campaign," he said. "We know we're going to have to escalate, make it a crisis."

Logan Square resident and McDonald's worker Nancy Salgado, 27, put it more bluntly.

"Are we gonna break the law? We're gonna break the law!" Salgado yelled to the crowd.

Chicago activists have been organizing for higher wages for more than a year, including a May protest near the McDonald's headquarters that reportedly got more than 100 protesters arrested.

Attendees at the convention were encouraged to be willing to get arrested, as well as stage sit-ins, strikes and walkouts.

Though workers from several different fast-food chains were present, a lot of the focus was on McDonald's. That came down to the location, said Emmanuel Gonzalez, 18, a West Town resident who works at a McDonald's in the Near West Side neighborhood.

"[The Oak Brook headquarters is] their own little sanctuary," Gonzalez said. "This is where it is. This is where it all happens."

Candice Young didn't have to take off work to visit the convention. She said she recently had been suspended from her McDonald's in St. Louis after she accused management of shorting her pay.

"I noticed my paycheck was the same even though I was working more hours," said Young, 28, who makes $7.50 an hour.

Eddie Foreman, 40, came to Chicago from Opelika, Ala. He makes $7.75 an hour as a McDonald's cook and maintenance worker.

"I love McDonald's, don't get me wrong," he said. "I enjoy my job. ... I go above and beyond for the job, and I want the job to go above and beyond for me."

The Illinois minimum wage is currently $8.25 an hour for non-tipped workers, one dollar more than the national minimum.